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Buddhism encircles Travellers & Magicians without directly informing it.

Travellers & Magicians

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published August 10, 2005

Parallel Journeys in a Land Where Time Takes its Time

It takes a true auteur to tell an old story in a new way. Like the one about dreams, and how they guide us through our waking lives, and how sometimes we follow them and sometimes they turn out just to be dreams. Or the one about lust and longing wending their way to that place in the heart that goes bumpity-bump and causes those dreams to turn on a dime.

            Khyentse Norbu’s Travellers & Magicians (his followup to 1999’s acclaimed The Cup) tells those stories in a new way, and in a new place: the Kingdom of Bhutan, a sleepy speck of a country in the eastern Himalayas, sandwiched between China and India yet a million miles from anywhere. Travellers & Magicians is the first feature film ever made in tradition-bound Bhutan; its stars are not actors, just folks, plucked from the general public to tell Norbu’s story because they seemed right for the job. Some of them had to learn the Dzongkha spoken in the film—although the country’s official language for 40 years, Dzongkha is but one of Bhutan’s many dialects, native to only a quarter of its residents.

Travellers & Magicians is actually two tales, one within—and paralleling—the other. That ploy, like the content of these two stories, is nothing new to the world of cinema. But Norbu, himself a Buddhist lama born in Bhutan, is skillful enough in both technique and storytelling to give the impression that Travellers & Magicians wears a fresh coat of paint.

Dondup’s story is where we come in. Long-haired, constantly smoking and wearing an I ? NY t-shirt, favoring Western pop music, athletic shoes and posters of supermodels, Dondup is a bored government official stationed in an impossibly remote village where nothing ever happens. Aching to go to America, where he believes he can make more money picking apples than he can as a government employee in Bhutan, Dondup (Tshewang Dendup) just misses the bus that will lead him to civilization. With no others due, and only three days to get to the town of Thimphu to secure a visa, he starts hitching rides as best he can in a place where the silence of nature is only occasionally pierced by the bellow of a chugging vehicle. Dondup is eventually joined in his journey by an apple seller (Ap Dochu), a monk (Sonam Kinga) and a rice-papermaker (Dasho Adab Sangye) traveling with his attractive teenaged daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo), who’s passed on an opportunity to go to college in order to help her aging father.

Curmudgeonly and aggravated, Dondup wears his impatience on his sleeve. Time moves too slowly for his taste. His fellow travelers are a nuisance. Bhutan’s breathtaking landscape is nonexistent to his eyes. Attempting to drown out the monk’s soft and soothing dramyin playing with his boombox, he’s thwarted by technology when his batteries fail, and only reluctantly agrees to pass the roadside wait time between rides listening as the monk—serene and wise as monks tend to be—unfurls a beguiling yarn about a young man named Tashi.

Like Dondup, Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji), who becomes Travellers & Magi

Very good (three stars)


In Dzongkha, with English subtitles